Take a Sauna. One built with love by hand, from the land and our supposed refuse. Relax against a wooden bench warmed for hours by a stove burning the same wood, scavenged from friends, neighbors, gentle strangers. Take a break from the heat, in the heat. When you step outside the desert air will feel cool as the breeze dries your sweat, your mind and body clarified. Take a Sauna. Take it for what it is but understand it is more; more because of the how, where, who and why of its making and the contextual layers that require sloughing off (like your skin softly scrubbed by the millions of years old pumice collected from the even more ancient sea floor called the mesa). Momentarily transcend the utility of the structure only to encounter the inseparability of its function and content. Take a Sauna.
In the summer of 2012 we participated in a nascent artists residency being built on “unimprovable” land in the Northern New Mexico high desert. PLAND (Practice Liberating Art through Necessary Dislocation), “a multi-disciplinary organization that supports the development of experimental and research-based projects through a variety of on and off-site programs [sic]” allowed us to approach our art practice(s) differently, to ask some particular and far reaching questions, and to work together in new and surprising ways.
The mesa is a hostile environment. Little water, extreme heat and sun, and everywhere, dry dry dust. We quickly and surprisingly adapted. Our hosts effused
over our comfortability in the place. Adopting roles, sharing tasks, caring for one another in myriad ways all became part of our daily routine. We lived our lives the way we know how to live them, making things nice, for ourselves and for others. The work was taxing, but the rejuvenation and inspiration that comes from spending time with a friend, engaging in dialogue, working together on something you both believe in, filling up on each other mentally and spiritually makes it easy. We were conscious of the physical strain on our bodies yet also of the fact that the work we were doing was not only fueling us in a multitude of ways, but also reaching towards the completion of a device that would heal people in our position for years to come.
Upon arriving at PLAND we were elated to spend the next three weeks working, thinking and living together but were also wary of the time slipping through our fingers. We often made tentative schedules and rapidly fell into a routine that allowed enough time for construction each day, dividing the rest of our time between reading, silently and to one another and discussing either what we had read or a topic that seemed relevant, anything from the Foucauldian concept of subjection/subjectivation2 and the potential for art to exist as a practice of critical self-discovery to it’s use as an open ended forum for social education in which to address the logic of late American capitalism and its intensely individualistic, self-preserving ideology that is so often in opposition to the maintenance of shared resources/spaces.
“This sauna is a tool for maintaining personal hygiene and healing your body while at PLAND so you may accomplish all you set out to do.” (quoted from the operating instructions within the sauna)
Why a sauna? The idea is centuries old and nearly every culture has devised some form of sweat bathing. Used practically and spiritually it resonates. The idea originated in response to the needs of the site, but more importantly through a process of considering our physical bodies and our relationship as collaborators as being in need of ‘healing’. Throughout the process we considered the building of the structure itself as a form of healing. The ambition, duration, and sheer physical tax of constructing this thing designed for relaxation and isolation became a metaphor for exhausting oneself chasing the life that will be worth living. After all, the sauna is designed to heal bodies engaged in precisely the type of physical work entailed in constructing the sauna itself. In this way it is both an affliction and a remedy. To consider this as a metaphor for the forward reaching ambition ingrained in so many young professionals, the ambition that periodically detaches us and so many of our peers from our present realities and the obvious joys or interests of actively engaging with them, is apt yet not without complication. Although we were imposing serious physical strains on ourselves to build a tool that would in turn be used for relaxation, a seemingly contradictory exercise, the process of construction gave us, our practices, our relationship, some much needed intellectual and emotional support and is as crucially implicated in the content of the piece as the finished structure itself.
Potentially it is more appropriate to consider this as a process of forward thinking direct investment, in our lives and the lives of all those who follow us in this endeavor. An instance of well planned, properly (albeit ad hoc) constructed infrastructure. In fact, since we did not have the ability to remedy our physical infirmities with the tool we were constructing we were made to search for alternate methods of healing ourselves and in the process discovered strategies for mutual self-care and learning. In this way, the generosity implied in constructing the sauna was reciprocated when in the process of doing something nourishing for others we found a way to feed ourselves.
“The friend’s role is to actively enhance the others potential, to push the friend to become-other”
Once teacher and student, we are considering the social boundaries our relationship has met and/or crossed while maintaining an interest in why or how those boundaries exist(ed) for us, and why they continue to exist for much of society. We are building a relationship that moves beyond intricate plays of power, generational differences and societal perceptions to become a friendship of equals. A friendship where influence bounces back and forth and ideas are collaborated upon and shared in a generative and challenging way in order to ask, “[w]hat if we were to stop believing in the inherent value of cultural identities and their affixed relational forms?”
The desire for a more formal structure, one simultaneously dislocating and centering, where we could critically probe the complexity of our relationship and the societal structures implicated in its creation is what led us to PLAND. We believe that collaboration is a form of dialogue and therefore has the unique desire to seek not stasis or tangible results but, conversely, the confluence of contradictions. Collaboration can be a tool to investigate difference - to test the ability of a unified entity to functionally contain contradiction.
Miwon Kwon writes of the the experience of contemporary artists as inhabiting a juncture “between nomadism and sedentariness, between space and place”, and argues that, “we need to be able to think the range of seeming contradictions and our contradictory desires for them together; to understand, in other words, seeming oppositions as sustaining relations.” This is our mantra, we recognize that it is in these oppositions we begin to relate differently, as artists and as individuals. That in our sense of estrangement (from the land, from society, from each other) we begin to generate new and novel ways of relating. We consider at every moment these relational sensibilities, and through the process of collaboration begin to break down entrenched, stagnating ideas.
Choosing to bring our practices to a site like PLAND comes in part out of a discomfort with the prevailing structures of the dominant art world and a desire to transcend the conventional structures of production and display which threaten to strip our thoughts, objects, and sometimes even ourselves of the critical agency that is both the impetus for, and substance of our art and lives. On the mesa, momentarily disconnected from the universities and urban centers that construct our opinions, our consciousnesses, we were free to reconsider our roles in the complex systems in which we know we will always function. To welcome the physical and emotional discomfort of our temporary home with open arms, to find ways of incorporating our naturalized domestic routines into an absolutely foreign environment, and to be open to discovering the potential of our temporary domestic life together to delineate new routines, new joys, and new ways of living and practicing together and apart. A luxury that might allow us to return home with a more expansive understanding of how we can affect those systems and our lives within them.
What if we forgot about the sometimes not so abstract path to achievement and for a moment tried to remember why we do what we do. To take joy in common interests and even more joy in our differences. To ask one another, “is this the reality you always dreamed of?”